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Iran, Social Media and the Rise of Genetically Modified Grassroots Organizations

The Fog Machine

by JACK Z. BRATICH

Occasionally, an event gushes through media channels, spectacularly belying the notion that news outlets have major ideological differences.  The current surge is a Green Wave, emanating from Iran.  But there is more going on here than a uniform support for the anti-Ahmadinejad forces. We are witnessing something older, what media scholars have called the “technological sublime”.  In this quasi-mystical sentiment, each media development brings with it a promise for a new age, even revolutionary. The twittering enthusiasm over the role of social media in the election protests has invoked this archaic link. 

Let me say upfront that

1) I’m not interested in supporting Ahmadinejad’s regime nor the theocracy that would be preserved whether he or Mousavi were elected. These internecine battles within a religious state, resulting in a palace coup at best, are not my concern.

2) I don’t disagree that there are democratic aspirations circulating on the streets and in the air from Iran. Any mass mobilization of opposition will contain these and a variety of other impulses, including patient Shah-era vestiges and neoliberal/traditionalist hybrids. The point is to not mythically dissolve these differences into a wave.

3) Most importantly, I do believe that networks, technical and social, have a role to play in composing and organizing oppositions. I fully support a number of domestic cyberactivist projects, so there’s no use Luddifying me. Rather, the point is to understand the contexts and alliances that shape an event. Every network has a number of layers: it’s time to unpeel one that involves some not-so-new patterns.

We can start with a telling anecdote. State Department advisor Jared Cohen earlier this week emailed the co-founder of Twitter, requesting that they postpone a scheduled maintenance downtime. The reason?  It was a critical moment for the demonstrators, and service needed to go uninterrupted. Twitter complied. The fact that a US government official is able have such pull, while not surprising, tends to get lost in a green wave of reports about social media belonging to “people power”.  Who gets to place these calls and get results? 

Cohen’s access should be even less surprising, given his role in State Department efforts to harness the power of social media. To wit, his role as press contact for the Alliance of Youth Movements. Launched in late 2008 with a Summit in NYC, the AYM gathered together an ensemble of media corporations, Obama consultants, social network entrepreneurs, and youth organizations, under the auspices of the State Department. Representatives came from Media Old (MTV, NBC, CNN) and New (Google and especially Facebook). The AYM produced a Field Manual and a series of How-to videos (How to Create a Grassroots Movement Using Social-Networking Sites, How to Smart Mob, How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy). The goal was to have youth leaders from around the world learn, share & discuss how to build powerful grassroots movements.

A few months ago, I wrote about this Alliance, calling it a “Genetically Modified Grassroots Organization” (GMGO). Neither wholly emerging from below (grassroots) nor purely invented by external forces (the Astroturfing done by public relations groups), these emergent groups are seeded (and their genetic code altered) to control the direction of the movement.

Through the How-to videos we are incessantly reminded about the code of this genetically modified activism:  Make sure you avoid violent extremism. Respect property. Use leaders. Speak forcefully without being incendiary. Avoid obscenities and violent imagery. Use as your model Cold War Latin American anti-Communism (anti-Castro, -Chavez, -FARC).

And these are purely exports: Apparently the election of Obama means not only that social networks are electorally effective, but that they no longer need to be used for organizing within the U.S. Now it’s just time to sit back and click your social media support for sanctioned “democracy” movements elsewhere.

And in case we had doubts about whether these protests were democratic, thankfully they’ve been given an official color. Green is the shade of this season’s infowar-paint.  We don’t know if Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institute, or the National Endowment for Democracy (the folks who influenced other branded youth movements and color-coded oppositions such as Serbia’s Otpor and the post-Communist Oranges of Ukraine) were directly involved in Iran. But Sharp’s fingerprints (even if only via printed matter) are all over it. In any event, US ambitions of destabilizing Iran have been well publicized, reported by Seymour Hersh among others.

What would clear proof look like in an infosphere that is cloudy (perhaps deliberately so)? There is no direct evidence that the Iranian election was stolen either, but that hasn’t prevented U.S. journalists from operating as though it were so (“faith-based reporting” as Dave Lindorff calls it). Wild speculations, repeated through media channels, come easily out of what media scholar Jayson Harsin names diffuse “rumor bombs.” What are the “facts on the ground” when social media produce a bottom-up mist?  In these latest infowar escapades, we need to revise our concepts: not the fog, but the fog-machine of war.

One thing is clear: cyberwar has once again taken front stage. Here traditional ambitions meet new technical developments. And there’s even an “old media” angle here. In November 2008 French authorities jailed readers and a suspected author of The Coming Insurrection for “associating with a terrorist enterprise”.  The Tarnac 9, as they’ve come to be known, were accused of being inspired by the manifesto/manual, pseudonymously penned by The Invisible Committee.

The book’s recent translation into English (and last week’s smart mob prank-reading at a New York City Barnes and Noble) might be a portent of media-galvanized domestic action. Will Jared Cohen’s efforts to “counter-radicalize” foreign populations find a domestic twist? How do we distinguish among cyber-assisted youth movements? While Gene Sharp’s books are secreted into populations via well-funded sources and considered inspiration for people power, other books are deemed terrorist tracts worthy of criminalization. For some youth movements, we change our Facebook profile pics; for others, Facebook ‘em, Danno!

Immediately, the hackles are raised: “These tracts espouse violence while the Sharpies are nonviolent!” But let’s not let delude ourselves into thinking the State Department has suddenly been stricken by pacifism fever. Cyberwar is part of information war connected to broader warfare (in which State violence is not very far behind). In the big picture, networked “people power” should be nonviolent because violence belongs exclusively to the State. Nonviolence from below, violence from above. Remember that Otpor destabilized from the streets, but NATO bombs rained from the sky. Will this Green wave wash over Obama’s public reticence, resulting in an American thumbs-up to Israel’s recurring announcements about launching strikes?  Which alliance-cloud is on the horizon: one that saturates the soil for the spread of anti-repressive measures everywhere or one that unleashes a torrential downpour of condensed violence?

Jack Bratich is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. He is also a zine librarian at ABC No Rio in New York City.  This summer he will be co-teaching a course on Affect and Politics at Bluestockings Bookstore through their Popular Education program. He can be reached at jbratich@gmail.com

Related Links/Further Reading

GMGOs: Direct(ed) Action and social movement networkshttp://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/

The Youth Movements How-To Hubhttp://youthmovements.howcast.com/

The Rumor Bomb:
http://flowtv.org/?p=2259

Liberating Lipsticks and Lattes
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/